There was something else there, but you couldn't see it. There were notes coming from somewhere — maybe adding up to a melody — but you couldn't quite hear them. Growing up in and around this sprawling, elusive city in the 1970s and '80s, Lynell George would see things, hear things, that never showed up in the daily press.
"I didn't always find my city in the newspapers," says George, who grew up black in racially mixed neighborhoods and was so inspired by the city and its contradictions that she decided to become a writer who'd decode L.A.'s sense of place. She was tired of reading about the wealthy Westside, Hollywood deal-making and society ladies in Beverly Hills. "Sometimes there were just little glimpses," she says, of something else.
Documenting the city — its racial and ethnic fault lines, the brilliant corners of its music scene, its overlooked literary life — was something, George realized, she could tackle more effectively as a journalist for alternative newsweeklies rather than a novelist. She'd spent years driving to Book Soup, a store on Sunset Boulevard, to pick up the Village Voice and read Greg Tate on black culture or Guy Trebay on the Bronx's crack epidemic or to Venice's Rose Cafe or Tower Records to pick up LA Weekly. "I wanted it on Thursday; I couldn't wait," she says. "If you didn't get it, it was gone. I wanted to be part of that conversation."
Talk to readers and writers about the heyday of the alternative press and you hear stories like this. For all the good memories, though, 2013 has been a rough year for alt-weeklies. The Boston Phoenix, among the oldest and most storied, collapsed in March, putting about 50 employees out of work, just six months after an optimistic move to glossy stock; the paper was losing roughly $1 million a year. Susan Orlean, a New Yorker writer who, like Joe Klein, Janet Maslin and David Denby, worked for the Phoenix early on, compares it to the disappearance of her alma mater. "I am a child of the alt-weekly world," she says, "and I feel like it has played such an important role in journalism as we know it today."